By Antonio Villaraigosa
U.S. News & World Report
The next administration can fix transportation funding and improve national transit.
Editor’s Note: The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has undertaken a “First Year Project” examining the history of presidential first years and the policy options available to Barack Obama’s successor. Excerpted below is an article by Antonio Villaraigosa on transportation infrastructure. The Miller Center will publish the full version of the piece on its website on Jan. 10.
The importance of transportation infrastructure for American society cannot be overstated. Our highway system, ports, airports and railroads are the arteries of the economy, moving goods, services and workers inside cities and between states.
In urban areas, public transit plays an equally important role not just for workers but for connecting all Americans to opportunities in their communities. In New York City, some 55 percent of all commuters take public transit every day. As our cities become more congested, a growing transit system can provide an alternative to driving. At the same time, our population of baby boomers will most likely rely on public transit as they age. Improvements in public transit can spur economic development and increase the capacity to move people.
Yet despite its significance, we as a nation have neglected our transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card graded the national transportation infrastructure from a high of C+ for bridges and rail to an embarrassing D for aviation, roads, and public transit. It estimates that highway congestion costs the U.S. economy $101 billion annually and that $170 billion per year of annual investment is needed to make significant improvements. Likewise, deficiencies in our transit systems cost another $90 billion per year.
The next president of the United States should pursue a national surface transportation agenda that addresses funding issues, staffing, and other targeted policy areas. The president should work with Congress to implement various changes related to federal transportation funding, the gas tax, the vehicle-miles traveled tax, tax credit bonds, the transportation authorization bill and congestion pricing, among other programs.
Transportation innovations like Uber and Lyft, same-day shipping of products to homes and offices, and driverless cars are fortunately changing our transportation system and the choices Americans have. Nevertheless, all of these innovations depend on a robust and effective transport network. Ride sharing, Google Express and automated vehicles all require roads, so investment in our highway system must continue to be a national priority.
Historically, transportation investment at the national level has been a bipartisan – indeed, even a nonpartisan – issue, with leaders from both sides of the aisle partnering to advance this common good. Unfortunately, political cooperation has been strained over the last decade, and Congress has struggled to pass surface transportation authorization bills in a timely manner. These congressional battles create massive uncertainty because state, regional and local governments frequently depend on the federal government to fund a portion of their construction, operating and maintenance needs.
Notably, the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for investments in highways and public transit, is insolvent, generating less revenue from federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel than the U.S. authorizes and appropriates. This situation presents Congress with two equally unattractive choices: subsidize transportation with revenue sources that should be used to address other pressing public needs or reduce transportation funding just at the moment when our infrastructure needs the most help.
Current taxes of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel are clearly inadequate for covering the costs of building and repairing our nation’s transportation systems. These taxes have not increased since 1993, have not kept pace with inflation, and are negatively affected as average fuel efficiency rises (which is vitally important). These forces result in less proportional revenue per gallon of fuel sold when prices rise. Rising fuel prices reduce both driving and fuel purchases while creating demand for more cost-effective public transit. But less fuel bought means less revenue to maintain, let alone expand, the transportation infrastructure.
In short, just as we need better transportation systems to sustain our economy and society, the revenues used to invest in infrastructure are diminishing.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 added important new funding resources to state and local government, but this measure was only temporary. While the money provided much-needed investment in transportation infrastructure and supported job creation during the depths of the economic recession, the aid was fleeting and did not address the long-term needs of the transportation sector.
For the next president, the most pressing question will be how can federal policy and spending produce the level of transportation investment necessary to support continued economic growth and a high quality of life for all Americans? While there are essential needs in other areas like airports, ports and rail, let’s look at what’s needed to improve highways and transit (including commuter rail).
Pricing should be set to achieve optimal traffic flow and it should not be used simply to generate revenue. Federally authorized congestion pricing would allow local jurisdictions to decide whether such pricing would be appropriate, and it would ensure that there is an explicit nexus between the program and how revenue is spent. Additional nonfederal transportation revenue would reduce the demand on federal coffers and would enable the federal government to leverage its limited dollars further.
But funding isn’t everything. Presidential appointments to federal transportation agencies also need a number of important qualities. Appointees must be loyal and share the president’s priorities for transportation. At the same time, these individuals should not simply parrot the president’s views, but be strategic thinkers who can help formulate solutions and be “critical friends” who can test potential weaknesses in proposals. Appointees with these characteristics will ensure that the president has a complete understanding of the strengths, weaknesses and implications of the transportation choices that are pursued.
Many of the appointees should be subject matter experts in transportation policy, finance, planning and engineering. This would give them important credibility with both federal agencies and stakeholders. Some of the appointees should be “outside the box” thinkers who will challenge conventional wisdom and push creative solutions. The natural tension created by this mix of talent will serve the next administration well.
A critical number of appointees must be experienced hands at successfully navigating Congress and agencies within the Department of Transportation, and partnering with state and local governments as well as stakeholder groups. It is essential that great ideas and important public policies do not die due to the inability to implement them.
And there are other policy areas to consider.
National transportation policy must return to a tradition of bipartisan cooperation in which the president and Congress work together. In summary, sustainable and predictable funding plus locally controlled policy innovation are the keys to dramatically improving American transportation. Implementing the recommendations suggested here will guarantee that America has the transportation infrastructure needed to support our economy and quality of life for decades to come.
Antonio R. Villaraigosa’s is a former mayor of the city of Los Angeles. He was also chair and member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors, the appointing authority for directors at the Southern California Regional Rail Authority; speaker of the California Assembly; and appointing authority to the California Transportation Commission.